‘Winning With the Hand We’ve Got’

In Difficult Times, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock Continues to Advance Campaign Finance Reform

“The greatest living issue confronting us today is whether the corporations shall control the people or the people shall control the corporations.” – Miles Romney, Montana editor and candidate for governor, 1906


More than a century after its sounding, Romney’s warning still rings true. The Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in Citizens United left campaign finance reform in a seemingly hopeless state.

But Montana Gov. Steve Bullock saw hope. In a speech Tuesday at the Center for American Progress on the state of money in politics, the governor argued for “winning with the hand you’ve got” on campaign finance reform. In Montana’s case, this “hand” includes working with Democratic and Republican legislators and advancing reform through executive orders, like Bullock’s order requiring Montana candidates to disclose information about campaign contributions.

In Montana’s unique political culture, candidates win by knocking on doors, keeping their promises, asking for a maximum $170 donation, and collecting nothing from corporations. As state attorney general, Bullock fought all the way to the Supreme Court to keep corporate money out of Montana politics. Despite a loss, Bullock led the legislature as governor to pass one of the most rigorous disclosure laws in the country to preserve the culture of Montana elections. And he did it with bipartisan support.

The story of Bullock’s election and Montana’s bipartisan embrace of campaign finance reform is unexpected in today’s political climate. Bullock, a Democrat, was elected in 2016 by the same Montanans who gave Donald Trump an overwhelming majority in the presidential race. Bullock explains his success by pointing to the voters’ desire for a candidate who will fight for the little guy. American voters share universal values – the hope for safety, a good job, and a better life for their children.

Bullock’s message was a timely reminder that Americans are more similar than our polarized political culture – with its corporate political spending, dark money contributions, and assorted scandals – suggests. We should fight for a system that does not reflect the harsh contrast between red and blue politics, but the combination of purple that is somewhere in between. This truly representative democracy can only happen when we use the hand we’ve got to fight for democratic institutions that represent the little guy.

Jane Hood and Lily Oberstein are Common Cause interns.